Stan Soloway

OPINION

Snowden case launches open season on contractors

The Edward Snowden leak case is, for understandable reasons, taking on a life of its own, and it has brought to the surface a number of important questions worthy of discussion and debate. However, in the great Washington tradition of never letting a good crisis go to waste, we’re also seeing the darker side of how the system responds to a crisis.

Despite all evidence and facts to the contrary, the temptation for Washington to turn this from a serious discussion of national security policy into a sideshow about less relevant issues has apparently proven too strong for some to resist.

As expected, the media and some in Congress are expressing shock that contractor employees are allowed and required to have security clearances, despite years of legislative and regulatory activity focused on improving that process and despite countless hearings, news stories and reports about both the clearance process and the government’s stark difficulty competing for top technical talent.

Even worse, we have been treated to a series of dramatic exclamations of concern over, and promises to take action on, the role of contractors in the intelligence community, even though there is not one scintilla of evidence that the presence of contractors—who represent a small minority of all those people who hold clearances—has in any way increased the risk of security breaches.

We expect that from groups and individuals who never miss an opportunity to slam the private sector and ascribe it blame for all forms of evil and misdeed, whether the facts support their contentions or not. But when similar commentary comes from thoughtful leaders who ought to know better, it is disconcerting to say the least.

Even as the Snowden case was developing, another parallel example of this fact-free, hyperbolic rhetoric was also unfolding on Capitol Hill. When pressed in a Senate hearing as to whether he agreed that contractors are, “on average” two to three times more expensive than government employees, a top Defense Department official responded “that sounds about right.”

Really?

After all DOD went through over the last several years, after the overwhelming evidence that DOD’s cost comparison “processes” fail to account for large chunks of internal costs, and after former Secretary Gates stopped his insourcing program because it wasn’t generating the expected savings, this official, who was there through all of it, and before, agreed with such a preposterous claim?

I realize, of course, that as a spokesman for our industry, my objectivity is going to be questioned. But just as the private sector has never claimed that contractors are always less expensive than government employees, no one can one legitimately claim the opposite.

The evidence is just too overwhelming.

Moreover, and here is where this relates directly to the issue of contractors in the intelligence community, it is true that for many high-skilled technology jobs private contractor pay is higher because the global market for that talent dictates such and the government’s pay scales are artificially suppressed. That’s one reason the intelligence community has turned to the private sector for support and why cost is not and cannot be the only measure of who should perform work for the government. 

This is only the beginning. Already the American Federation of Government Employees is on the warpath with “briefing papers” that are so over-stated and factually incorrect they would be good fodder for comedy, if some didn’t accept them at face value.

Ironically, they continue to hammer their themes of “overpaid contractors” while still also highlighting and (correctly) complaining about the very pay gap described above. Hearings are being scheduled on the NSA case, including on the contractor aspects of it. And the appropriations and authorization processes are in full gear.

Make no mistake about it. Open season is upon us and there are those who will use the Snowden case in every conceivable way to achieve their political objectives.

Our job is to ensure that fact and substance do not become the first casualties.

Reader Comments

Tue, Jul 9, 2013 ConSoulBro No Va

Observations: Stan, you're pretty quick to change the subject to something more familiar. There are dire, yawning issues about the management of contractor-provided, butts-in-seats bodies to the IC. You know what they are, e.g., who supervised him, who was responsible for detecting he might be disaffected. You are averting your eyes. This is big business. As a tertiary issue, why is the Wash Tech nearly totally ignoring this story? Someone might point out that with a couple of exceptions, all prosecutions of spies since WWII have been against US govt civ employees and members of the military, not contractors. When it comes to leaks, who is knowledgeable enough to say govt employees and the military are more trustworthy than contractors. The cauldron of internal govt/mil ethical problems and misbehavior, including criminal behavior of many types, suggests we should not leap to the conclusion that govt emps and the mil are any more trustworthy in keeping secrets than contractors. The media, especially, the WaPo, can't get this story right and persisist in mis-stating who gives clearances (Clarence), who has been proven untrustworthy. Further, they just do Google searches and copy POGO material--voila--irresponsible, laughable, CNN-quality drive by-journalism. No, it is not journalism, but Stan, you could pick up you lobbying game by frontally attack the business side of the Snowden issue, even though the industry would just like it to go away. It won't sorry to say, because it happened, and it is real, and seems rather threatening to a number of parties.

Mon, Jul 1, 2013

No one seems to care about the rights of US citizens here. I think Snowden did a great thing and is to be admired for going against the grain. The administration wants to take the focus off of what really matters and that is the rights of US citizens. The IRS has already shown what they do to help the current admin, Snowden was just showing what another agency is up to, to help out the current admins cause. We need more people like him working for and in the government. Way to go!

Mon, Jul 1, 2013 Bill DC

How did the discussion of security policy, clearances and nature of work divulge into a debate on pay? OK, I'll play along. Seriously, if the government was able to maintain the available talent through adequate training, workplace environment, well prepared supervisors, and adequate pay ..... there would be no need for contractors, talented people would be breaking down the doors to enter government service. But that isn't the case is it. The brain drain of talent away from the government is evident is almost all areas (outside of pure research initiatives) especially in applied technical talent. On a local government level, everyone jokes about the treatment and service you receive at the DMV. They don't joke about the federal level because most people don't have a clue what various agencies and their folks do ... or don't do. The joke I heard on my first tour in the Pentagon on the mid 70's went like this .... After hearing about all the massive amounts of space, corridors, lights, steps, desks, etc... from my escort; he left out a major piece of data, so I inquired as to how many people worked in this great building ... to which he answered "about half"! Little did I know at the time what an optimus fellow he turned out to be. On the whole, the government workforce is grossly overpaid for the actual output of productive labor outcomes which are produced. Now back on point of this article, of all the "major" spy's and traitors over the last 30 years or so; how many have been contractors vs. government employees? Historically this isn't a contractor problem!

Mon, Jul 1, 2013

Wow, S.S. D.C. I completely disagree with you. As a contractor for 24 years, I very much have a calling to support the People, the government and the warfighter. I choose to do it via a contractor role, but it is no less present.

Mon, Jul 1, 2013

Just as someone else pointed out... Bradley Manning was not a contractor employee. The trust factor is inside and out, period. The risk is no greater nor no less.

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